Saturday, 11 August 2007


Any society that includes slavery cannot be described as 'sensitive'. It is only possible for human beings to permit the slavery of others if they do not empathise with their slaves--for once you put yourself, seriously, for the long haul (not, that is to say, only for fleeting periods of sentimental or erotic fancy) in the position of a slave then of course you see how insupportable it is. On the other hand, the benefits of slavery to the slaveholder are obvious enough--the freedom from labour, the exercise of power-- that it doesn't take too much shrinkage of a human's natural sensitivity to reduce it to a level where you don't empathise with those you oppress. And any culture as a whole that accepts slavery is necessarily insensitive: is therefore automatically capable of, say, slaughtering the entire male population of a city with which it is at war, and selling the women and children into servitude. So when Nietzsche talks of the ancient Greeks as 'a race so sensitive ... so uniquely capable of suffering' it is more than usually baffling. But then it occurs to us: The Birth of Tragedy is not actually about Ancient Greece, and he is not describing the Greeks when he talks about their extraordinary sensitivity. He is talking about himself.

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